"A deus ex machina will never appear in real life so you best make other arrangements."
In a season full of stories both good and ill, perhaps no story was better in Detroit than the rise of J.D. Martinez from waiver wire refugee to legitimate power threat batting in the middle of the second-best offense in the American League.
It was nearly a heaven-sent match. The Tigers wound up badly needing another power-bat to plug into their lineup. He was the "deus ex machina" of sorts. An improbable solution parachuting in from nowhere to save the day.
Martinez is now being counted on. There has been practically no talk in most quarters wondering aloud if Martinez's big season was "for real." When talk starts to get bandied about in Hot Stove fashion about filling the Tigers holes, nobody is mentioning him.
But it's a fair question. What can the Tigers expect from Martinez in 2015?
The Evolution of J.D.
The story didn't start with the Astros axing Martinez, who embarked on a swing-rebuild last winter. He set out on a video analysis experiment to see where some of the game's best were with their swings and how it compared to his own. Martinez wanted to make changes.
The results started to show fairly quickly. While playing Winter Ball in Venezuela, Martinez was already showing an altered approach, one foreshadowed what would happen in Detroit in 2014. Dan Farnsworth's amazingly prescient article at Fangraphs did an astounding job at breaking down the mechanical adjustments and predicting that whichever team wound up with Martinez would have a chance at holding a winning lotto ticket.
Martinez new approach had the barrel of the bat in the hitting zone longer and, evidently, it was what enabled him to adjust to pitches of different speeds more readily than in the past. This may also explain his newfound ability to use all fields, unlike prior years.
Then, long-rebuilding Houston Astros made the curious decision to cut ties with the hitter. Martinez was once an intriguing prospect but had failed to impress in parts of three MLB seasons. However, Martinez was still in his mid-20s with time to improve. With roster spots evidently at a premium, the Astros cut the cord and Martinez was looking for work.
Luckily for Detroit, the Tigers were able to obtain his services. Rookie manager Brad Ausmus had recruited Dave Clark to be his third base coach and it's said that Clark's recommendation of Martinez may have helped sway the Tigers into the move. Martinez would report to Triple-A Toledo as outfield depth for the Tigers.
Once Martinez entered the International League as a Mud Hen, he wasted no time putting himself right on the Tigers' radar. Martinez went about terrorizing minor league pitching right out of the gate. Ten homers in 71 plate appearances on any level will get you noticed, and Martinez would be called up to join the Tigers before the end of April.
The first month or so in Detroit was mostly uneventful. The diamond in the rough was yet to be uncovered. The Tigers were off to a 27-12 start, however, so it was easy for Martinez to blend into the background in anonymous fashion early on.
Indeed, even though Martinez was in the lineup on a semi-regular basis, he was still hitting a rather ordinary .242/.301/.455 on June 5th. He was playable, but nothing to write home about.
Then it all came together. Martinez would return to the lineup on June 9th against the White Sox with two hits. This touched off a 14-game hitting streak that would kickstart a stretch where he had hits in 29 of 32 games. His batting average would crest at .346 during this storm of offense, and he would only spend two days under .300 the rest of the season.
Martinez emerged into a force. He was now a bat that could change games with one swing without being a defensive liability. Martinez also had the good fortune of finding his real groove against the opponents he saw the most. He completely scorched AL Central foes from top to bottom. His seven homers against the Cleveland Indians put several nails in their coffin on the season. Martinez also punked Kansas City Royals pitching to the absurd tune of .446/.450/.804.
Martinez was the bat the Tigers badly needed after Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Together, they were a formidable run-producing unit, even with a down season from the legendary Cabrera. Primarily out of the five hole, the younger Martinez would finish the campaign with the sporty slash of .315/.358/.553, an ideal complement to his more established mates.
Martinez still didn't take a ton of walks. His 6.3 percent rate was below league average. He also showed plenty of ability to chase some ugly pitches at times, as his 26.3 percent strikeout rate will attest. If you care to wonder how these figures play into his long-term success, that's very fair.
Two numbers stand out to showing his new approach at the plate was not only about a new swing-path, but also a more aggressive mindset. Martinez swung at a career high percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone (37.7 percent) in 2014 and also established a new high in swinging-strike percentage of 15.2 percent. The aggression certainly yielded great results over 480 plate appearances, but will that approach be built to last?
The obvious thing to wonder is what Martinez will do for an encore. Is he going to be a reasonable facsimile of the guy he was in 2014, or will the regression monster rise up to claim it's next victim?
Much of the Tigers' offensive success in 2015 is going to be tied to the younger Martinez. Certainly, the Tigers hope for a healthy and resurgent Cabrera to seek vengeance for his slow season. It might be a little much to ask Victor Martinez to duplicate the career season form he flashed in 2014. His 32 homers were a career high and he put on a daily hitting clinic that will be hard for a 36 year old to replicate.
The aging Torii Hunter will not be back in the fold either. For all of Hunter's flaws, he was still a productive bat in the Tigers lineup. Ian Kinsler had a horrific second half which he will need to rebound from at the top of the Tigers order. Nick Castellanos might take the next step in his career to become a more dangerous hitter but there is still learning to be done for the soon-to-be 23 year old third baseman.
The Tigers don't appear on the precipice of adding another significant offensive weapon. Whispers of signing Melky Cabrera, for instance, will probably not yield much. Unless Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski makes a big play for someone like Cuban slugging prospect Yasmany Tomas, it appears the Tigers will be happy to add center fielder Anthony Gose next to Rajai Davis in the outfield and move into 2015.
No, a big part of the load is ticketed for J.D. Martinez to carry. The Tigers need his power presence once again to keep the line moving and break open some games.
For the skeptics out there, Martinez had plenty of his success fueled by a rather high .389 BABIP. There is no question that number is pretty high. It will be hard to repeat for a guy who came into the season carrying a BABIP under .320 to that point in his career. However, this is where the changes to his swing come in. It seems Martinez really benefited from the ability to use all fields for the first time. This likely contributed to the nifty success on balls in play. While a .389 clip might not be realistic, he might establish higher norms through his altered approach than one could have imagined in his days in Houston.
Martinez is a hard player to shift against. Being right-handed is a part of that, as shifting is more commonly done against left-handed hitters. But the ability to shoot balls the other way or hit for power to the opposite field makes it even harder to shade up the middle for many clubs.
Looking at Fangraphs' Steamer projection, Martinez's BABIP is slated to regress markedly to .327 in 2015. This lower success rate would, in their eyes, project him to hit .273/.323/.461. This would still make him a pretty valuable player for Detroit, but not the game-changing force he showed to be in 2014.
I'm not ready to consign him to the Regression Bin. Certainly, stating that premium production is hard to maintain is a good way to increase your odds of being correct. You won't go broke betting that way consistently, especially when a player has a big season. Martinez's power appeared real, however, and not being merely a hulking pull-hitter is to his advantage.
Martinez showed a some resilience. He slowed down in the second half of the season after his torrid stretch in June and July but he didn't stay down. He tore through September pitching in the heat of a tight division race. The moment wasn't too big for him and he continued by showing power in the ALDS as well.
The two extremes I see for Martinez cover a wide spectrum. Will he be a version of Nelson Cruz? A later-blooming middle of the order presence who carries his career of solid production (albeit with better defense for J.D.) into his 30s? Or will Martinez be the next Craig Monroe? A guy who had a run of good production in 2006 but quickly devolved into JAG territory (Just A Guy) for the rest of his career?
I'm taking the "over" on the Steamer projection numbers. I think we saw plenty of things to like from Martinez in 2014 and, at age 27, he's reaching the prime of his career. If he can find a bit more patience and discipline to improve his walk rate, he could even take his game up a solid notch.
At the end of next season, if he has played 150 games with a final line of around .280/.340/.500 he'll have done his job in fine fashion. Those numbers feel possible, maybe even probable.
Make no mistake, however. It might be said that "as goes J.D., so goes the Tigers offense." They need that third guy to back up their two star bats. J.D. Martinez needs to be a big component of the Tigers success in 2015.